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Trump’s executive order on religious freedom under attack

After President Donald Trump issued an executive order on religious freedom last week, the Left used its pre-written script to attack it even though it was dramatically scaled back from the draft that was leaked to left-wing media outlets in February.

As if on cue, the Rev. Barry Lynn, president of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, pounced, claiming the executive order “tramples” and “guts” the entire notion of religious freedom.

“The president pandered to his far-right fundamentalist base, upending protections for houses of worship and allowing religion to be used as an excuse to deny women coverage for contraception and other preventive health care,” Lynn said.

That obviously makes for a good fundraising letter for Americans United and other like-minded groups, but it doesn’t resemble reality.

In the Rose Garden ceremony on the National Day of Prayer, Trump signed an order directing the Treasury Department to use great discretion in enforcing the Johnson Amendment against churches. The Johnson Amendment, a provision in the U.S. tax code, prevents all 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. In the same order, Trump directed multiple departments to address conscience-based objections to the Obamacare mandate requiring employers to pay for contraception and abortion-inducing drugs.

Most social conservative groups wanted to give the president the benefit of the doubt, using some iteration of “a good first step” to describe the order. However, Michael Farris, the president of Alliance Defending Freedom, was a little more blunt. ADF has been behind Pulpit Freedom Sunday to challenge the Johnson Amendment and has represented dozens of employers in litigation over the Obamacare contraception/abortifacient mandate.

Farris said the order “provides hope,” but added its “vague instructions to federal agencies simply leaves them wiggle room to ignore that gesture, regardless of the spirit in which it was intended.”

“We strongly encourage the president to see his campaign promise through to completion and to ensure that all Americans—no matter where they live or what their occupation is—enjoy the freedom to peacefully live and work consistent with their convictions without fear of government punishment,” Farris continued.

In fairness, the Johnson Amendment—named for a provision pushed by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson in 1954 that restricts political speech by churches and other nonprofits—would require an act of Congress to overturn. But attacks on religious freedom in the United States went much further during the Obama administration.

Compared to the draft that was leaked to The Nation magazine (of all outlets) in February, the order by Trump was relatively vague. The draft included language to allow religious organizations to adhere to their religious beliefs in hiring decisions; required the Obamacare exchanges to include pro-life plans; and restrict the government from retaliating against federal employees or federal contractors over religious beliefs, such as same-sex marriage.

While the Washington Blade, a leading gay newspaper, said the order was “silent on LGBT issues,” the top LGBT advocacy group, Human Rights Campaign, attacked it, claiming it amounted to a “#LicenseToDiscriminate in agencies across the federal government.”

This sweeping approach could result in an unprecedented expansion of religious exemptions affecting employment, services, and programs. Revisiting federal law, including regulations and policies, will almost certainly have significant implications for LGBTQ people. In essence, the executive order punts the question of how and where the administration will permit discrimination against LGBTQ people to [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions, a man who has consistently denied LGBTQ people equality under the law.

There is of course no such license to discriminate. Ask the group that never misses a chance to sue and manufacture controversy.

At least in this instance, the American Civil Liberties Union should actually be applauded for demonstrating intellectual honesty compared to other left-wing groups, shockingly announcing it wouldn’t sue.

“What President Trump did today was merely provide a faux sop to religious conservatives and kick the can down the road on religious exemptions on reproductive health care services,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said after reviewing the order.

The ACLU description was only slightly more critical than that of ADF, and the two organizations routinely spar in court.

The ACLU’s frankness was in short supply on the Left, which much prefers to traffic in hysteria, claiming that theocracy is always around the corner. A case in point is Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, who called the order “an unambiguous attack on the separation of church and state.”

“This EO can be added to the mountain of evidence that Donald Trump is not and never has been a ‘social moderate;’ he’s a loyal ally of the most extreme and intolerant voices in the Religious Right, and he’s willing to put that partnership above the wellbeing of women and the core principles of the First Amendment,” Keegan huffed in a cliché-laced statement.

Then, there’s the Interfaith Alliance that made a similar attack. The organization’s president, Rabbi Jack Moline, called the executive order a “payment to religious extremists for their support,” and “a betrayal of the First Amendment.”

This could serve as a teachable moment for the infant administration.

The White House chiseled away at the draft executive order apparently to appease these same groups that went on the warpath over the draft. In the end, the lesson is that most progressive groups oppose any expression of religion in the public square, and will likely oppose whatever this president does.

The Author

Fred Lucas

Fred Lucas is author of Tainted by Suspicion: The Secret Deals and Electoral Chaos of Disputed Presidential Elections (Stairway Press, 2016) and White House correspondent for The Daily Signal.